Threads of History

“No mortal will ever believe”: Smallpox in the Champlain Valley

By John Krueger, Chair of the LCBP Heritage Area Program Advisory Committee


Many of you know that I’m a strong advocate for historical context.  My goal in this post is to provide some.  The snowy New Year’s morning of 1776 held little hope for the troops of the various American colonies huddled outside Quebec. Their attack upon the British citadel the previous night had failed. One of their commanders, Richard Montgomery, lay dead in the snow, while the other, strong-willed 35-year-old Benedict Arnold, lay disabled in a makeshift hospital with a shattered leg.

Painting: The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775

During the American Revolution more soldiers died from disease than from any other single cause; as the pen was mightier than the sword, germs were mightier than musketballs. “The Death of General Montgomery in the Attack on Quebec, December 31, 1775.” John Trumbull, Yale University Art Gallery.

Isaac Senter, a 22-year-old Rhode Island doctor, viewed the army’s prospects as “gloomy on every side.” Nineteen-year-old Aaron Burr undoubtedly agreed. Arnold notified General George Washington in February that “notwithstanding every precaution that could be used, the small-pox has crept in among the troops.”

Smallpox was an acutely infectious disease characterized by a high fever and eruptions. The eruptions or “pox” developed into pimples that eventually burst and left the distinct scars from which the name was derived. Most people with smallpox recovered, but about three out of every ten died. Survivors had permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their faces.  About one third were left blind. With its one-two punch of a high mortality rate and the possibility of disfigurement for life, smallpox struck with tremendous impact and was regarded with terror. The disease affected all levels of society.

Those fortunate enough to survive smallpox passed through a very unpleasant recovery period.  As one survivor vividly described his experience, “my stomach Very fowl, breath bad & my whole fraim Soar.”

The two most successful means of combating smallpox were isolation – today we call it social distancing – and inoculation.  Isolation did little to help sick individuals, but when quickly and efficiently employed isolation considerably lessened the chances of the disease spreading out of control. Arnold urged Congress to order the immediate controlled inoculation of the entire army as soon as practical.

Before the introduction of vaccination, inoculation was the greatest boon in checking smallpox.  The technique consisted of transplanting pus from the pox of a sick person into an incision in the skin of a healthy person. The resultant infection was usually mild and the chances for survival far greater than in cases of infection through ordinary means. While a healthy person inoculated with smallpox usually suffered only a mild case, the germs he or she passed on were potentially deadly.

Rhode Island doctor Isaac Senter recalled that many soldiers were “very uneasy about the small-pox spreading among them.”  It was against orders, but men inoculated themselves because they were “willing to run any hazard rather than take smallpox the natural way.” Green Mountain Boy Seth Warner was reported as telling his soldiers, “If you should take smallpox in the Thigh and Diet for it, it would be much better for you and they will not find it out.”

Smallpox was still spreading in the American camp when British reinforcements reached Quebec on May 6, 1776.  In today’s terms, there had been no flattening of the curve.  Panic set in. Nearly 200 of the most seriously ill were left behind, while the rest of the infected soldiers joined the helter-skelter retreat.

Charles Cushing from Hingham, Massachusetts was a captain in the 24th Continentals, one of four regiments from Washington’s army ordered to Canada that spring. The 32-year-old farmer described how the retreating army stumbled into Sorel. Soldiers carried “the small-pox among them, and boat loads with sick with it were landed among us, so that there seemed no possibility of escaping it.”  There was no escape. The 24th Continentals recorded a sickness rate of 93% in mid-June. Writing from St. Johns, Arnold informed Philip Schuyler, commander of the Northern Army and future father-in-law of Alexander Hamilton, that “Near one half of our Army are sick, mostly with the small-pox.”

The next stop on the American retreat was at Ile aux Noix in the Richelieu River just north of Lake Champlain. Dr. Lewis Beebe, Ethan Allen’s 27-year-old brother-in-law, was “struck with amazement” when he reached the island at the sight of “vast crowds of poor distressed Creatures. Language cannot describe nor imagination paint, the scenes of misery and distress the Soldiery endure. Scarcely a tent upon this Isle but what contains one or more in distress and continually groaning.”  Lewis Beebe spoke for many when he declared, “No mortal will ever believe what these men suffered unless they were eye-witnesses.” “Alas,” he wondered, “what will become of our distressed army, Death reigns triumphant.”

The small band of health care providers were in such high demand that by the end of each day they were “deaf, dumb and blind, and almost dead.”  “It broke my heart,” one of them recalled, “and I wept till I had no more power to weep.” There was no testing; personal protective equipment did not yet exist. The shattered army spent ten days at Ile aux Noix. More than 900 American soldiers are still there; buried in two mass graves.

The retreat continued. Twenty-year-old John Trumbull, son of the governor of Connecticut and subsequently a painter of considerable merit, was appalled by the condition of the army at Crown Point in early July. “At this place,” he wrote, “I found not an army but a mob, the shattered remains of twelve or fifteen very fine battalions, ruined by sickness, fatigue, and desertion, and void of every idea of discipline or subordination.”

American decision makers finally concluded that the only way to deal with smallpox was to isolate those infected and systematically eliminate the disease. General Horatio Gates, a British-born soldier promoted well beyond his abilities, explained to Washington that “to put this evil from us” a hospital had been established at Fort George, at the south end of Lake George.

The great migration of the sick from Crown Point was underway by July 10.  In the preceding eight days more than 100 soldiers had died. Despite these efforts, as late as the end of July, everything about the army at Ticonderoga and Mount Independence was still infected with the pestilence: “the clothes, the blankets, the air, the ground they walk upon.” In the words of General Gates, “As fine an Army as ever marched into Canada has this year been entirely ruined by the small-pox.” Writing to Washington at the of August, Gates was finally able to report that “the small-pox is now perfectly removed from the Army.” Naval dominance on the lake became the next major objective, a story that I touched on in my first post.

Here’s a final bit of concluding context.  In May of 1796, twenty years following the events just described, Edward Jenner, an English country doctor, administered the world’s first vaccination as a preventive treatment for smallpox. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scientists developed new vaccines to fight numerous deadly diseases including polio, whooping cough, and measles. More sophisticated smallpox vaccines were also developed and by 1977 international vaccination programs had eradicated smallpox worldwide. The last natural outbreak in the United States occurred in 1949.[1]

[1] A version of this post was presented at the LCBP’s first virtual COVID steering committee meeting in April 2020.  Delivered over my cell phone because I was technologically deficient at the time, the quotations came from my M.A. thesis, A Gentleman of Zeal and Character in the Public Service: Doctor Jonathan Potts and the Northern Medical Department (The University of Vermont, 1974).  I can provide specific citations for anyone who might be interested.